You have to admire the Liberal Party’s remarkable ability to swing the political conversation back to itself time and time again.

The world may be undergoing an historic financial crisis and Australia teetering on the edge of recession but for many Liberals at the moment it’s all about the Nationals.

Some of us may have been fooling ourselves that last week’s late night Senate shenanigans didn’t matter a great deal, that National senators crossing the floor on the last vote of the year at twenty to two in the morning wasn’t important in the scheme of things. Not too many voters would have known or cared, except perhaps Nationals voters, and if you can ‘t cross the floor a year into Opposition then when can you?

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But the Liberals just can’t let it go.

Just as the dust was settling on the Shane Stone letter earlier this week, when we were all in danger of switching attention to looming holidays and Yuletide festivities, Tony Abbott appears to attack the Nationals.

“The Liberal Party respects conscientious dissent,” Abbott piously intones.

“Nationals senators’ considered decision to vote contrary to the shadow cabinet, though, was more serious… Nationals senators need to understand that it’s impossible to be part of a coalition only when it suits them.”

Presumably Abbott has shared those views with the two Liberal senators who crossed the floor as well last Friday.

Abbott has been doing this all year. He briefly went quiet after Malcolm Turnbull ascended to the leadership but lately he’s been at it again. He is plainly bored with his portfolio — he even complained he wanted out of it when Turnbull was considering his shadow ministry — and loves being the centre of media attention. He is the Opposition’s resident blabbermouth, Mr Rent-a-quote who’ll speak on anything, anytime, for anyone. We got Media Monitors to check Abbott’s press appearances for the last six months, divided between comment on his own portfolio — Families and Indigenous Services — and everything else.

Press Radio Television Total
Tony Abbott (portfolio) 625 6,238 3,547 10,410
Tony Abbott (other) 872 5,429 1,965 8,266

The split is nearly 50%, but in the press he talks far more about other matters than about the area he is supposed to be focussed on.

Abbott wasn’t alone, though. Alexander Downer’s replacement Jamie Briggs — a long-term Nats hater according to Coalition sources — decided to weigh in as well, declaring “Barnaby wants to make a decision over the Christmas period, does he want to be part of a team or does he want to be a renegade?”

While there’s no excuse for Abbott, at least Briggs is young and new to the game. But quite what either is thinking, or what good they believe they’re doing, is a mystery. We’re back to the absurd days of Brendan Nelson, when the Coalition couldn’t stop talking about themselves. The Nationals are astonished at the apparent inability of some Liberals to keep their mouths shut.

“It’s not doing us any harm at all,” one National source said. “And do they seriously think they can browbeat Barnaby into line? John Howard tried to do it and couldn’t.”

The Christmas break can’t come soon enough for the Liberals. Provided the likes of Abbott take a holiday from offering their views on internal Coalition matters.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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